The 4 key challenges to cacao farmers today
We spend a lot of time talking about farmers and agroecology at BLYSS, and I often get asked what the key challenges actually are for farmer families. Here are the top 4 challenges in their world typically.
Education, be it about agroecology, cooperatives, budgeting/finances, health or simple culture is often lacking in many cacao growing communities. This ends up affecting their ability to make good economic decisions for their village or cooperative, negotiation skills and also working practices onsite. As farmers they need the deep agriculture understanding, but also they represent families and villages which survive from their ability to grow AND sell the crops at a price that sustains a good life quality. Health knowledge to battle the new set of diseases that is floating around the world, literacy to read manuals and documentation, youth leadership to help next generations stay connected to the plantations are also important trainings for farmers to have to manage their steps in the current geo-political and economic environment.
2. Resisting Industrialisation
Finding a balance between producing bumper crops and taking care of the land is the eternal battle for a farmer family. Doing what needs to be done to grow and sell what they have today, while looking what the next season can bring is sometimes a knife-edge decision for leaders of cooperatives. In an environment where cheap, quick and fast is valued more than depth, sustainability and quality one cannot judge another farmer for choosing methods and fertilisers that bump crops because they are making decisions for their family liveliehood most of the time. Organic food still represents 1% of production around the world and is by no means the standard decision for farmers to sign up to. Supplies and planting tools, crop rotation, diversity in the planting, soil fertility, pest and pod disease management are the major problems that are seen in the field. These days, about 30-40% of crop is already lost to pest and disease in many cacao growing regions. Combined with warmer plantation temperatures, longer rain seasons, the actual growing and harvesting of actual yield has dramatically reduced in years and this can cause intense worry.
3. Selling and Markets
You’ve probably seen many of the infographics that pop up in social media about how cacao farmers typically earn a few cents from chocolate which is sold for dollars. Of course there is a process of manufacture and margins which exists in capitalism but the discrepancy that typically occurs between farmer and end product is vast in chocolate. Facilitating this is the actual isolation of farmers, although they work now often in cooperatives, they don’t get access to standard market information, nor know how to properly interpret it, understand the changes in cacao quality standards, international regulations on health etc.
Working together, sharing transportation costs and speaking openly is typically the best way for farmers to be able to get an idea of what their crop is worth, and how to sell it.
4. Climate Change
It’s getting warmer and wetter on most cacao plantations. Soil nutrition and fertility is going down and although there are wonderful natural (and unnatural) solutions to help, there has to be a return to some old traditions that grandparents used with water recycling, shade-grown crops, multi-diverse cropping (which also yields economic return!). I have a video about this here which you can watch.
The biggest markets for chocolate around the world is the USA, Europe and Japan. And it has to be US to as consumers, or chocolate makers help support the farmer requirements.
At BLYSS, we have our Bean2Belly Promise: bean2belly is our working principles, our promise to agroecology and food sovereignty. We don’t have all the answers, but this is our best attempt at the moment.
What we DO:
We work with almost a hundreds of farmer families in Ecuador and Philippines hundreds of cacao plantations, and see the impact of climate change. We have 30% less cacao yield every year directly due to climate change of increased earth quakes, more rain, more mosquitos and as a result, people we work with are getting sicker due to mosquito born illnesses.
While as a social enterprise, all of our chocolate costs are re-invested into an eco-system of sustainable business practices earth care (23%), social care (21%), regulation (23%) Research and development (33%).
We guarantee a fixed price for our cacao from families who work in cooperatives. We never haggle about price, and we pay at least 7 times what the bankers in London trade the beans from West Africa to do. It is because we pay not just for cacao, but for the pre and post forest care. This involves planting new seeds and taking extra care of them in a special nursery for the first months with constant monitoring, leaving pods on the trees for the native insects and animals, forsaking the pods on the highest branches for safety of the guys who go cut them down. We consider this to be a little ‘beyond bean’ and therefore ultra vital to the future ability of all of us to work together. Through this, we have been able to develop trust levels over the last 5 years, which is evident in being invited to weddings, celebrating childbirths together, and reliable and steady supply and payments. We don’t force exclusive relationships with BLYSS, because we have our own standards. We only use about 50% of the beans we see because the others don’t meet our standards. We pay for them, but we don’t use them, and they are able to be resold to other chocolate companies. This is fair and a great use of forest resources, nothing is wasted, and there is always opportunity to grow and improve.
We support the role and leadership of both genders, and ethnic backgrounds. The locations we work with are still in developing stages of understanding about equal opportunity and this is a principle we work with very intensely. This means that sometimes we send women, guys from different socioeconomic background to represent BLYSS at quality and safety checks, to demonstrate how we are the example of what we want to positively reinforce. Things aren’t always perfect, but they evolve. And Patti’s experience from Papua New Guinea is a great pathway for developing this further.
We positively reinforce recycling, and again, do our best from the HQ to be the change we wish to see on that. Our work through the BlyssfullyYours program, which is our social project collaborations which collects old laptops as a great example of how we want to re-use, encourage re-use and recycle, while also sharing resources that might not be present in the first place (this is connected via the labdoo.org project).
Our Quality Assurance guy, Nate, looks out specifically for the following metrics amongst all of this:
- Developed policies for biodiversity in agroecology
- Have traceable sourcing policies which incorporate traceability of raw materials down to the origin
- Raw materials are sourced by sustainably managed ecosystems
- Production processes and facilities avoid physically degrading ecosystems
- Our partners have good health and safety policies
- Policies to ensure accuracy of reporting, elimination of fraud and prevention of corruption
- Apply standards that conform with the UN Guiding principles of Human Rights
- Minimise use of waste going to landfill – through technology recycling program
- Have alliances with certified charitable organisations in Ecuador, Philippines and Europe
- Have a program where we pay people from our team to do charity work and participate in charity programs
- Support development of women in leadership positions within our partners
- Quick-check labour practices of our suppliers and partners
- Ask our suppliers about their practices of paying ‘local living’ wage to their employees
- Invest in community development activates in the markets in Ecuador
- Choose suppliers based on trusted references and reputation
- Make packaging out of recyclable and re-usable materials
- Have a process for managing WEEE waste (waste from electrical and electronic equipment)
- Apply standards that conform with the UN Guiding principles of Human Rights
- A policy for no purchase of product or supplier that involves hazardous chemicals
On our list of work for 2014-16, we are currently focused on the following topics:
Establish our first ISO certification as we were focused on ISO 9000 for the last years but realise we are also interested in these: ISO 14000, ISO 14001, ISO 26999, SA 8000, ISO 26000
- Get our vegan, lactose and gluten free certifications in Europe
- Sign up to Ethical Trading Initiative
- Sign up to UK Global Impact
- Set up community activities within the countries we operate within outside of Ecuador and Europe
- Be part of Green Restaurant Association
- Be part of LEAF – Linking Environment And Farming
- Be part of Red Tractor – food standards
- Be part of Sustainable Restaurant Association
- Develop our own standard on energy management, waste management and water conservation.
- Be part of Forest Stewardship Council
- Receive certification about compliance with UN Guiding Principles on Human Rights